Letter from Algiers to a Friend from Beirut
There are encounters that withstand long separations because they happened at a particular time. That goes for you, who I lost sight of for a long time, and who I met in the liveliest days of our lives. Are there lives outside of lively days? Alas, yes. Many years later, we ran into each other and caught up in the queue for a plane from Paris to Cairo, and then in Alexandria we met again, and... since then, we met again where we had parted, in the intimacy of History, the Tunisian revolution had just broken out and our hearts were cheerful.
I have chosen to describe you in a letter. What could be more personal, more close? And impartial? A letter, therefore. Did I see you for the first time in 1969 at the Pan-African Festival in Algiers during the first World Congress of Documentary Filmmakers and the first World Cinema meetings? Everything we did in those years was a first, a world event, a Third World and revolutionary event. Or at the Carthage Film Festival, which I followed passionately in the shadow of Hamadi Essid, its director, a Proustian lost in those pioneering and rather “tough” years of our small society? Or else in Paris, in one of those cafés where we used to meet, after “climbing there” from our southern cities to share our desires, our rage, our projects. We were insolent, remember? The war in Lebanon had not started; Algeria could still imagine a future. And we were young and youthful, the roads before us were many, wide open, branching off in all directions. Pleasure, love, politics, and freedom were beckoning us like so many louts lying in wait by the road. All we had to do was move forward. Then your war came, the first of our fratricidal wars, which you brought back in the reels of Lebanon in a Whirlwind, filmed in 1975, watched in Algiers immediately. At the Cinematheque, of course, the obligatory passage of the 1970s, as Algiers was the Mecca of dreamers. How many had their hearts broken there into a thousand pieces? I see you again in front of the white screen, all dressed in white, “without a bra”, you like to remind us. The spectators were mesmerized, and more than one hard-boiled member of the Communist underground party, PAGS [Parti de l’avant-garde socialiste], which formed the core of the intellectual public, puritanical like no other, was disturbed. With that slight Beirut accent, you spoke to us about your work as a war reporter for the magazine 52 minutes. You explained to us why the film we were going to see was a pivotal film for you. You had slammed the door on French television, which refused to broadcast it so as not to disturb the Phalange. A circumstance that made you break free of the format and the diktat of television big shots. It was as a free reporter that you were welcomed by the Direction Presse Filmée et Magazine (DPFM) of ONCIC, the Algerian national film production company – in 1977? – you wanted to film the fighting Saharawi people, and you said you were leaving with the Polisario. Mustapha Abdoun, the young, very young head of the DPFM – we were all young – still remembers your demanding nature: “I want to show the fighting Saharawis, and not take sides with either the Algerians or the Moroccans.” You had warned them that it would become Sahara Is Not for Sale (1978). You went ahead, and life smiled on you. All you had to do was appear; your courage and determination did the rest. Your talent, too. Didn’t France 2 replace its evening news (shortened by five minutes) with Beirut, Never Again? A film that perfectly expresses your manner: mixing History and your own history; and adding to the magic of this tour de force, Etel Adnan had written the voice-over in one go – a text of great beauty. Isn’t that the cinema we love, the one mixing politics and poetry?
Then, as close to yourself as possible, Beirut, My City, a declaration of love, a film of resistance if ever there was one, by its very existence, by its filming conditions. It was 1982, the city besieged by the Israelis was deserted. There were only 20,000 inhabitants who couldn’t flee and about thirty artists, intellectuals volunteering on all fronts. You describe how Roger Assaf, the most talented theatre maker of his generation, gave his all on the stage of life: he devoted his time, his energy, his creativity, and it was necessary in order to provide supplies to the population. You, risking your life, carried your camera to where there were still women, men and children. It was a matter of urgency for you to give an account of a city, of a people vulnerable to its disappearance. Isn’t that what cinema is?
That evening in 1975 at the Algiers Cinematheque, we listened to you silently. Even the young people who were there, as always because it was the cheapest cinema in the city, were silent for once. It must be said that it was a very important event. An Arab woman war reporter! An independent filmmaker! Our filmmakers, all men – Assia Djebar would not arrive from Paris until 1976, carrying The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua in her luggage – were all “socialist” state employees; and the women? Algerian women? They desperately and unsuccessfully struggled to be recognized. We were discovering another way of being Arab, of being a woman, of being an artist far from any ideology, in one word: a free woman. A meteor in our sky, which was so soft and conventional, with a revolutionary appearance that went no further than the fabulous Agrarian Revolution and the use of a Marxist lexicon. What a discovery for us, entangled in our peasant clothes, bursting with the pathos of brotherhood, taped together by the cult of heroes, and still immersed in the “drama of colonization”! There was a war going on in your country, yes, a terrifying war, a civil war, the worst of all wars, but there was also your impatience, your audacity, your frenzied will to live, to push yourself to the limit. A lesson for me and my comrades, an invitation to freedom, while we were draped in the flags of the National Liberation, that destructive myth of dreams and desires going stale.
We were so different. We enjoyed comparing our ways of eating: on the one hand, the multitude of dishes on Lebanese tables, all classes combined, everyone serving themselves in the order they want; and on the other hand, the collective couscous of my country, the same seasoning for all. Weren’t all the Algerian films of that time a dogmatic illustration of the single fraternal people? Which is generally not so good for cinema nor for the people. The girl from Beirut looked at us with astonishment, sympathy, affection. She liked Beirut/ Algiers as much as we dreamed of Algiers/Beirut. Nahla by Farouk Beloufa would be the beautiful illustration of this embrace. You had passed him the virus of this city that you never stopped investigating throughout your work. “The war was approaching. Beirut left la Dolce Vita and fell into a most atrocious war. I had to go to Vietnam, but I stayed in Beirut, as I wanted to understand the reasons for this turnaround. I knew that, from now on, I had to devote myself to that.” The city of all possibilities, more alive under bullets and bombs than Algiers in times of peace, which fell asleep as soon as the evening star appeared. Your city was the emblematic city of our desire for a future, for an elsewhere, for something else, a city that touched us more than Paris or Rome or New York, near and far, unique in the Arab world. Until today, and today more than ever. So much so that Farouk, the director of a single film, wanted to shoot his film there in the midst of the Lebanese war. Would he have been able to carry out this madness without you, who led him between the shootings and the bombs, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, with that physical and mental agility to escape both, both Christians and Muslims, and all kinds of dishonourable bandits. I doubt it.
After Alexandria, our meetings resumed at the rhythm of our travels, and projects imposed themselves. Very quickly and quite naturally, we made a future appointment to pursue these ideas, these projects, these desires that never cease to live inside of you, and that you communicate so well to others. I was like a sponge. First for the opening of MuCEM in Marseille, an installation on sexuality in the Arab world in which you investigate violence, homosexuality, ostracism, intolerance, but also the courage, creativity and the struggle we are waging against the demons haunting our societies and trading in fundamentalists. How beautiful and talented Walid (Aouni) and Alexander (Paulikevitch) are! And brave. They have become friends. For me, you had chosen a sequence around the “girl in the blue bra” in Tahrir Square, this young girl trampled and stripped in the middle of a demonstration by young armed men in combat fatigues and trainers. Policemen? Militiamen? Who knows? The power of Mubarak took a turn for the worse. What is certain is that whatever the origin of these hordes, they were driven by the hatred of women.
We filmed in Bonifacio, in the far south of Corsica, facing the Mediterranean Sea, which is as fascinating to you as it is to me. We are the daughters of this sea, you from Tyre, the origin of all cities, and I from the crossroads of Istanbul and Catholic Spain, both heirs of the complexity of the world, bearers of this history that they want to destroy by gunfire from all sides, from the South, from the North, as well as from the East and the West, from our neighbours and our mixed families! A world attacked by all the fundamentalisms growing within our sick societies. There will always be your images to bear witness to our times. Isn’t that what cinema is?
And then, you created the Tripoli Festival [the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival]. “Culture as resistance”, words that sum up your life perfectly well, as well as the lives of all those you love, have loved, and who have stayed awake, like you, on the borders of the fratricidal wars that have now invaded our Mediterranean world. People who are awake and don’t want to be seen as important because of it. A festival, because it’s not enough for you to make your films, you need to say and make it heard that history is written by Cinema that’s against the flood of images of “a poor current-affairs cinema that has to wash away the blood and the tears as one cleans the pavement when it’s too late and the army has already shot at the crowd” (J.L Godard, Histoire(s) du cinéma). Your first selection, in this respect, set the bar very high. That goes for Shakespeare Must Die by Ing K., which gained the First Prize for Fiction at the first edition of the Tripoli Film Festival (2013), a mise-en-scène in extenso of Macbeth’s text and a fine example of radical, political cinema under its gory appearance. A representation of the passion of power and of the blood and madness it leads to. A film that helps us understand the apocalyptic images of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi emerging from history. A film that “explains” the inexplicable and gives it a political dimension by forcing our minds to break out of the fear anaesthetizing them, and to “reflect”. Isn’t that what resistance cinema is?
If I had to choose a word to describe you, I’d say impatience. The right word to describe what you were when we first met, and the reason why that friendship still lasts. From the first exchange. Your eyes searched the hearts and souls of those you met, looking for their alter egos. The first time we spoke, I understood that, like me, you believed that we could change the world, and that images, words, poetry, music, and art were the best ways to do so and to prepare for the Great Day. We were young women in a hurry. I had found in you the utopian vision of life that I and a couple of my comrades at the Cinematheque shared. A stubborn vision that we nurtured in the dark rooms we dove into, far from the dazzling lights of the military-religious spectacle taking place. In the darkness of the Algiers Cinematheque, the beloved child of Henri Langlois, to feed our expectations, we piously collected fireflies (in the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini the Younger), the many gold nuggets in world cinema films, in the eyes of the directors, in your eyes, in the passionate harangues of the Cinematheque’s aficionados. Fireflies as so many promises.
Those eyes that looked straight at us and expressed the passion of life are, today, tempered by tenderness and patience. Patience, which is the reverse side of your impatience that I found intact in Alexandria during that long walk through the deserted city on a Friday halted at prayer time. In that art deco café from another time, where a veiled prostitute was the only other customer – do you remember that story, a reality that exceeded fiction and that I will not tell, your exchanges with her, and the waiter who took a tithe from her every time she went to the toilet? In that café, we seamlessly resumed our conversation, which had stopped more than 30 years ago.
Which wasn’t obvious. There are so many old friends we met at random on the street, at a show, at a meeting and never saw again because we had nothing more to say to each other. We met again after Alexandria because in that city, after a long absence, we hadn’t come to a nostalgic halt. That’s how alive it had been. Our first words, first you to me: “What are you doing? – And you?” You had just finished Dunia, Kiss Me Not On The Eyes, that beautiful film about a young woman who discovers her body, which gradually becomes more important through a series of sinister events. I was finishing a book, Histoires minuscules des révolutions arabes. The revolution had begun in Tunisia, was expected in Cairo, and in Algiers where it would not arrive. We found ourselves in Alexandria full of hope for the Arab Revolutions. And if there was any nostalgia, it was a nostalgia for the future that we had hoped for more than 40 years. And that we continue to hope for.
Dear Jocelyne, this future that has not arrived is obviously still there, in the depths of our expectation, of our impatience. There you have it. I would have liked to call this letter “Letter from the front”, but I abandoned this idea for fear of appearing excessive or conventional. Let us say “Letter from Algiers to a friend from Beirut”. Another way of saying the exact same thing.
Originally published as ‘Lettre d’Alger à une amie de Beyrouth’ in La Furia Umana paper, no. 7 (November 2014).